Monday, March 21, 2011

Saving Face and the Scientific Method in Classical Tai Chi


"Tao of Martial Applications" DISCUSSION:

Mark Thomasson DDS recently sent a very insightful article on the concept of "Face" to me.  Mark is a student of Master Stephen Hwa and has studied Classical Tai Chi for several years now.  In his article Mark writes: "I think this consumer driven "show me", "how many lessons will it take?" is consistent with popular consumer culture.  This attitude of proof before pay weakens the classical teacher/student changes it...creating distance and a barrier of skepticism to receiving instruction" He quotes Herbert Spencer: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

I find Mark's article to be spot on in light of the power that material culture holds over us all.  In my opinion, "consumer driven" or "material culture" weakens teacher/student relationships  by creating a barrier of skepticism  because by its very nature it  allows very little in the way of expression.  You see, the relationship between teacher and student in Tai Chi is a two way street ,  it has to increase the scope of expression for coherent learning but it also has to allow both parties to show mutual respect or "save face" ( mianzi )in the process.

I have found some students who went far beyond mere skepticism even when they received free lessons.  Their attitudes were nothing less than arrogant, completely insulting and their whole aim seemed to be a humiliation of the teacher.  On the other hand I have experienced teachers myself, who felt that even the most politely worded questions were humiliating.  This I'm pretty sure has quite a basis in the concept of "saving face". What a paradoxical situation where Tai Chi is so fluid, seemingly "laid back" and yet we find both teachers and students being as unyielding as steel.

Students may haphazardly come to rudimentary understanding over years in spite of this.  However,   I do not think they will come to understand the greatest principle of "internal discipline"  I  say internal discipline is the greatest principle  because Tai Chi is based on an internal physical discipline. This physical internal discipline is so little known and misunderstood that most Tai Chi nowdays exists because it is based on having a certain internal mental demeanor.  Fortunately, there are teachers whose whole purpose is to teach Classical Tai Chi as an art based on solid footing of principles.  More fortunate is the teaching of Classical Tai Chi with  the primary principle of Internal Discipline being in the forefront.  This is an emphasis on internal discipline with scientific understanding, rather than keeping a student strung along on a diet of "technique and application" using external movement.

Classical Tai Chi is fortunate to have Master Stephen Hwa as an enlightened teacher who holds no "bars against information".   His students have learned as well not to hold "contempt prior to investigation".  As a student of his, I feel quite fortunate to have a teacher that bases his teaching on a comprehensive scientific approach to learning. The learning of internal discipline gives the student ample opportunity to follow the scientific method. Students are encouraged to research things themselves, make observations, test/experiment and analyze their results.  In the case of Internal Discipline students have "feedback" and tactile sensations of the body to confirm their study.  Above all, students are encouraged to ask questions but also learn enough scientific discipline to ask questions based on their prior research and study.

 It is quite obvious in the attached video that there are no barriers of skepticism.  Yet, there is an obvious level of respect between Master Hwa and his students. Students in this discussion are being encouraged to ask questions but also guided by Master Hwa in how to do so intelligently and succinctly. In addition, we have ample representation here of  allowing all parties to "save face" in an atmosphere of mutual learning.  It would appear that traditional concerns over respecting one's teacher are not violated in an atmosphere where scientific discipline is maintained.  Based on our experience and research however, it will be predicated on having a teacher that is well versed in both Classical Tai Chi and the Scientific Method. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Classical Tai Chi uses internal discipline for walking and kicking

Please take a moment and view this Youtube video which was shot at a seminar that Master Hwa did for World Tai Chi Day in Rochester, NY:  Internal Discipline in Walking and Kicking

Question: “I truly don't understand this. How can this lead to a quick kicking thrust that can be executed reflexively?”

I studied other styles as well as Wu’s Style for a long time before beginning Classical Tai Chi.  Certainly in this as well as other styles the “ mind-body relation starts from intense struggle and engagement in the beginner’s stage” as my teacher says.  Then the learning “proceeds to total disengagement”.  The mind can enjoy things in the practice almost as if the practice is being done by someone else, not a “cruise control” but more like independent observation.  For martial purposes a kick can be done quickly and reflexively because the movement has become subconscious. 

As to the mechanics of the movement and how it is done:
The psoas will become engaged, as will the gluteal and femoral muscles but the origin of the movement should come from the transversus abdominis and rectus.. the long abdominal first you must exaggerate the contraction of the lateral and oblique muscles of the abdomen and squeeze the gluteals,relax the leg and the foot... A low kick is a quick sudden, unexpected (for its martial art application) thrust from the abdomen and back through the pelvis and the leg. That means that from the side the leg is kicking, the pelvis thrusts downward from the tilt which transmits power through the leg.

Question: “I have never been told to do that, and matter of fact, the instruction for the small frame is in direct opposition to what you're advocating, a release of the abdominals, using breath so as to allow the load bearing to penetrate through the musculature and rest inside the qua.”

First of all, this is not weightlifting, and so the breath should be natural. You have to take into account the framework from which you say you are executing your kick as.  You say “small frame”, when in actuality there is considerable difference in the size between Wu Style Small Frame and Classical Tai Chi Compact frame.  I did the Wu Style Small frame for many years and to do what you say (which is true for that frame)I was taught to primarily use the contracted muscles of the leg to lift and walk or kick.  In other words, the leg had to move like a “telescope” with the individual segments, calf/thigh, etc. contracting and extending or even swinging from the hip as Master Hwa shows.  Not much different from everyday walking and kicking is using the same muscles.

With the individual segments of the leg contracting and expanding, the energy does not flow uninterrupted.  In fact the flow of energy is interrupted at the joints themselves.  What Master Hwa shows is the leg completely relaxed, no bending at the joints and when the power is delivered from the abdominal and back, it goes straight through…no interruption.  Of course, and unlike the small frame you speak of, the kicks in Classical Tai Chi go no higher than the opponents knee.  If you want it to go higher then you pull the opponent down toward the rising foot using “yank” (Tsai).  This goes to the heart of the old Tai Chi saying: “Do not kick unless you can kick with 3 legs”.  This means,  your  one leg supports you while you are in contact with the opponent who is standing on his 2 legs.